Anja Charbonneau, Broccoli and Catnip
We’ve wanted to discover what’s behind the exciting cycle of launches from US magazine publisher Broccoli for a while. The recent launch of Catnip provided the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Anja Charbonneau is the owner and creative director of the company, which established its credentials with cannabis mag Broccoli before adding Mushroom People and a host of one-off books to its range. Catnip—‘A magazine for cat people’—is the latest addition to what she descibes publications about ‘unusual delights’.
Before starting her own business in 2018, Anja was first a freelance photographer and then an art director at Kinfolk.
What are you doing this Monday morning?
I always feel very spoiled on Monday because the first thing I do isn’t work-related at all. I wake up, make myself a quick breakfast, whisk up matcha with steamed milk, and then I drive across town to attend a ballet class. I danced as a kid and started again last year, and it makes me so happy. Having a creative job, it can be hard to find a hobby that feels creative but truly sits outside of work. I have had to fight the urge to make a ballet magazine, honestly, because while there’s a lot there to play with editorially, I want to keep it purely recreational.
Once I come back to my desk, I reply to any pressing emails, fire up Quickbooks and take care of my bookkeeping, and ease into music with something instrumental. I went through a phase a while ago where I started every morning with Mary Lattimore’s gorgeous harp album, Silver Ladders. I avoid booking meetings on Mondays if I can, and do my best to get my head on straight. We published seven titles last year so we have a lot on the go at once, and I always have to be careful that I’m steadily chipping away at my responsibilities. This year, I want to publish at least two to three art books, so I’ve been working on finding and contacting artists whose work feels like a nice fit within our universe of unusual delights. It’s always exciting writing to someone new. I love that feeling of potential.
Describe your work environment
I call my work area “the shack”, it’s a very small converted shed next to my house, you could cross the entire thing in two or three good strides. The Broccoli team is all remote, split across different cities and countries, so we all live the work-from-home life. The shack has the illusion of being a treehouse, with huge cedar and maple tree trunks outside the windows, and its size means I spend a lot of time seated on the floor, on the rug or my bean bag chair.
The shack is very much a mini Broccoli archive, there are a bunch of trinkets that have been featured in the magazine, back issues galore, publications we’ve been featured in, and a selection of books and magazines from my collection. Because of the poor insulation, plants hate the shack, so I have a gorgeous fake flower arrangement made by my friend Karyn of Osa Floral that sits in my direct eyeline. I’m not a big calendar person, but I have one made by Adrienne Kammerer and Molly Dyson, both Broccoli contributors, that I have been flipping monthly for years.
Which magazine do you first remember?
My parents gave me copies of Highlights, and Owl, both were playful educational magazines for kids, and Owl had more of a nature angle. My favorite feature included macro images and you had to guess what object was in the photo. I bought a couple copies of Owl on a recent visit home while yard sale shopping with my mom.
There’s another magazine that deserves an honorary mention though, one that I found rooting around at my grandpa’s. I think he moved into a place that was already furnished or someone left belongings behind, and in a box of magazines I found the most glamorous, strange thing: a copy of Catmopolitan (above), a spoof magazine all about cats in the style of Cosmopolitan. As a kid I probably didn’t understand that it wasn’t a real magazine, but the image of the cat stuffed into an elegant gown on the cover haunted me and might have been the original seed planted for Catnip, all those years ago! You can find copies of Catmopolitan, and the dog-adjacent title, Dogue, on eBay or Etsy pretty easily. I have both in the shack.
Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
It’s only been a couple days since I read about Pitchfork being folded into GQ, and in those hours my brain has been on a journey. First, I feel that it’s an opportunity. I wasn’t a Pitchfork reader aside from scanning their playlists from time to time, and I haven’t bought a music magazine since high school (I’m remembering an issue of Spin with Hole on the cover, bought at a 7–11 alongside sour candies), but it’s definitely a timeless subject. I believe that any dying segment of editorial media can be reborn in print today, because there are endless amounts of excellent ideas and keen readers out there.
The key is making something nice enough that people are willing to pay for it, because we’ve all been trained to expect digital content for free. Anyway, my next thought was that I wasn’t interested in making a music magazine. But when I woke up the next morning, I started thinking of what my dream music magazine would be, breaking free of the classic formats like reviews and top ten lists. And then I started to feel excited and had some manic chats with my editors, Stephanie Madewell and Ellen Freeman (who also makes her own magazine about secondhand fashion, Mildew!). It’s not officially something we’re making, but it’s fun to consider.
Describe Catnip in three words
Playful, obsessive, retro.
You're involved in multiple magazines, but they are generally in a particular orbit around cannabis/mushrooms etc. Where does a cat mag fit?
Our self-titled cannabis magazine Broccoli was our first publication, and while I’m endlessly grateful for its popularity, it has created a bit of an identity crisis in terms of audience perception as we’ve evolved into being a publisher making many different things. At first glance, there’s an expectation that drugs are a throughline, but it’s not the case. The common thread across everything we make is a sense of wonder, curiosity, love for the natural world, and visual treatments that tread the line between weird and beautiful. In 2017 I described this to Vogue as “unusual delights”, and now we’ve stolen that from our past selves to be our publishing tagline.
Whenever we decide to make a new magazine, we’re looking for the perfect trifecta of editorial excitement, a passionate niche readership, and advertising potential. This is the recipe that works for us. Sometimes the idea flies out like a joke, like saying, “I want to make a cat magazine.” I adore cats, they are my favorite animal, and I know many other die-hard cat people. Think about the way people go insane for cats online, and suddenly it makes sense: cat lovers deserve more than memes and funny cat videos! They’re an editorial treasure trove, and our director of partnerships, Jessica Gray, was able to find some emerging, design-forward cat brands to work with which helped alleviate the production costs.
We have a bunch of magazine ideas that don’t have a clear tie to advertising, and it’s scarier to commit to making those projects because aside from the ads and our product sales, we don’t have any kind of outside help with funding.
The magazine is such fun, I guess you’re a cat lover. Tell us about your life with cats
I’ve always been a cat person, and currently share my life with a fluffy tortoiseshell cat named Amanda, and a mischievous gray tabby named Toadette (Toad, above). Toad is a destroyer, she tries to eat plastic, knocks things off shelves, chews through cords, and Amanda is an elegant, calm beast.
We toyed with ideas of having Toad be Catnip’s editorial intern, showing her mistakes and raucous contributions to articles. We couldn’t figure out how to communicate her as a character across such a big magazine, so it evolved into our design process with Jennifer Wright (our designer since day one), turning into things like clear spot gloss paw prints across the pages (as if a cat walked across), a cat scratch die-cut (above), and ink splatters on our “mewsletter”, a fold-out mini magazine “for cats, by cats” written by Ellen.
An early presentation deck about Catnip
Obviously the magazine had to have plenty of cats in it… but there are so many cats. How did you pull all the stories and images together?
Whenever we start a new magazine we do two big calls for contributors, for art and writing. It’s always exciting when it’s a brand new theme. With writing, we commission some pieces from the pitches (this is where we get to know new writers), and a few of our regular writers are given specific assignments based on ideas we have. With art, I license some imagery and commission others, and in Catnip’s case I was really happy to have a reason to work with Stephen Eichhorn again, who was also featured in Broccoli issue three many years ago. His moody orange cat is our cover star!
I also wanted to tap into the cat-loving community and did a call on Instagram inviting people to send in a picture of their cat, which turned into a massive yearbook-style grid of cat photos submitted by internet strangers. Another dream come true was including Naomi Kritzer’s award-winning short fiction piece, titled Cat Pictures, Please, after hearing it on a roadtrip years ago via the Clarkesworld story podcast, which I recommend to anyone who likes being read to. It’s cool to see the way that we’re always collecting treasures that might turn into stories later on.
Please highlight one story from the issue that sums up what you’re trying to do with the magazine
Do Robot Cats Dream of Wireless Mice? is the final story in the magazine. Writer Lauren Oster looks at the ineffable quality of cats, both from a historic and futuristic perspective. The cat you see in the images is a robotic companion cat designed in China, and Lauren asks the engineers how they’re breaking the concept of a cat into elements, like softness, purring quality, potential for comfort. Can you really recreate a cat’s true nature?
I love the freaky photos by Caroline Heinecke, they’ve got the vibe of a strange stuffed animal found abandoned on a thrift store shelf. Is it a cat? What makes a cat a cat?
How did your time at Kinfolk inform your current Broccoli business?
Prior to joining the Kinfolk team, I was working as a freelance photographer. When an art director role popped up, the job description felt almost exactly like the work I was doing with photography, except for actually snapping the shutter (and all the editing!). I had no editorial experience, but they took a chance on me. It was a small team, so I got to learn not only editorial processes but got plenty of glimpses into the business side of running a magazine.
Truthfully, I believed I'd never run my own magazine, it felt way too hard to succeed in the space. I left Kinfolk during a time when the company was for sale, I was working remotely in Oregon managing a team in Copenhagen, and I felt too disconnected from my work. A few months later, as the cannabis industry started to open up, I saw an opportunity to make a creative and beautiful magazine around that theme, and took the risk with $40k of savings. It felt like an experiment, we gave the magazine away for free for the first three issues, and the business model has evolved along the way. I’m Broccoli’s only owner, but our founding team includes two of my former Kinfolk colleagues (Jennifer James Wright, design, and Jessica Gray, partnerships), and I lucked out finding two fantastic editors (Ellen Freeman and Stephanie Madewell). Our team also includes Alice May Du, designer, Zoe Sigman, operations, and Lauren Tussey, editorial assistant, who are all incredible talents.
What one piece of advice do you have for someone producing their own magazine?
Diversify your editorial formats, it’s not fun to read several Q&A interviews all in a row.
What are you most looking forward to this coming week?
Leaving my house! We’ve been trapped by an ice storm for over a week and the cabin fever is setting in, hence me suddenly wanting to make a music magazine. Help!